Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Blind Justice

And now, my second installment of Meta-Moralizing, the part where I don’t analyze the message, but rather how themes are constructed in Adventures in Odyssey.

This episode is based off Twelve Angry Men, which I will be spoiling heavily. Even though it’s well past the statute of limitations, it is also one of my favorite movies, I think everyone in the world deserves to watch it at least once without knowing what’s coming, so there, consider yourself warned. Eugene and Bernard have been given jury duty, on the same case. I don’t think I’ve reviewed an episode with Bernard yet, but he’s kind of a poor man’s Tom Reilly. Folksy, convenial, generally prone to giving out life advice that mostly isn’t crappy. The biggest difference is that he works as a custodian and general handyman, rather than farmer/politician, and he is a lot snarkier. He also has a fun love/hate dynamic with Eugene, who is his distant cousin.

The case concerns a high school senior who is accused of a house robbery. He actually confesses to breaking and entering, but says it was just part of an initiation into a gang, and he didn’t take anything of value. According to him, the gang went in afterwards, unbeknownst to him, and torched the safe. When the kid left the gang, they planted a bracelet in his locker to frame him. Part of the point of gangs is that they are hard to leave, after all.

He does have an alibi for after the break-in, but it’s fairly loose. According to the prosecution’s expert witness, the safe would only take about fifteen minutes to torch through, so the timeline still works in the prosecution’s favor. The kid’s case looks even worse because, during the investigation, he kept adjusting his story. When he thought he could convince the cops he had nothing to do with the robbery, he denied everything. When they had a more solid case, he essentially confessed to what they could prove, but came up with a story to get off the hook for the rest. An entirely unverifiable story. Most of the jury thinks this is an open and shut case.

Although everyone is interested taking a quick vote and dashing out, Eugene insists on following procedure. Bernard is elected foreman and they issue their votes by secret ballot. The secret part turns out to be pointless, however. Everyone votes guilty, except for Eugene, who gives himself away by writing a nigh incomprehensible mini-essay on reasonable doubt instead of “not guilty.” He insists on going over all the evidence again, to everyone’s dismay.

In both Blind Justice and Twelve Angry Men, the other jurors are impatient, but also genuinely convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The difference is the reason for the single dissenting vote. In the film, Juror 8 is disturbed by the implications of casting the twelfth guilty vote. The defendant is a boy accused of murdering his father, and in the setting, a guilty conviction guarantees a death sentence. The kid is barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Juror 8 doesn’t feel right giving someone that young a death sentence. That unease turns into reasonable doubt when he coincidentally finds a knife identical to the one used in the murder. The prosecution’s case rested in part on the knife’s design being rare, possibly even rare, but if Juror 8 could find a copy without even looking for it, what does that say about the prosecution? Worse, what does it say about the defense? Have they been neglecting other obvious holes in the prosecution’s case? Is a teenage boy about to be killed because his public defender is tired, apathetic or lazy?

Eugene, on the other hand, votes not guilty because… he’s not convinced? He honestly never gives a coherent reason. He buys the kid’s story as a plausible alternative because otherwise the episode would be over too quickly.

When I was young, I knew the moment Eugene began to protest that the kid was innocent. On my first re-listen as an adult, I at first thought this was because I was precociously genre savvy, but then I began to reconsider. Younger me didn’t know what this story was based on. Furthermore, you could write an equally interesting story where Eugene is in the wrong. He often tries to prove he’s more intelligent than everybody else, and has to learn a lesson about his own arrogance. How did I, as a little kid, know that wasn’t where the story was going?

Because, in this episode, Eugene was clearly the highest ranked character.

Adventures in Odyssey has a very simple moral hierarchy. It goes like this;

  1. Whit
  2. Tom Reilly, Jack Allen, or any Christian parental figure
  3. Jason Whitaker
  4. Eugene
  5. Connie
  6. Childless Christian adults with recurring roles
  7. Christian kids with recurring roles
  8. Non-recurring characters of unspecified religion
  9. Non-Christian parents and adults
  10. Non-Christian or non-recurring kids

Non-Christian, non-recurring kids are never right, and Whit is never wrong. Everyone else is always right if they are the highest ranked character in the episode, or agreeing with the highest ranked character, but they are always wrong if they disagree with the highest ranked character. And I’m not hyperbolizing about the frequency. I racked my brain to come up with exceptions, and if any of you can think of one, please leave a comment. I can’t think of any episodes that break this rule.

So, now that both stories have hit the “somebody votes not guilty to the other juror’s dismay” point, we move into “intensive re-examination of the available evidence” which will take the majority of the remaining time. Twelve Angry Men gets fairly complicated at this point. As they examine each piece of evidence together, there is always a point where an alternative explanation is possible. The boy has an alibi that he was at a movie theater. According to police records, the boy could not name the films or newsreels when at the stations, although he could on the stand. Was he coached by the defense? Or too confused and stressed at the station to think clearly? These are the kinds of questions the jurors ask. At no point are we convinced of his innocence, merely made to doubt his guilt. The movie frequently discusses the difference between the two, which is a distinction that too many people don’t think about. We like binaries. “Guilty” or “innocent.” The third category, “not proven guilty or innocent,” is troubling. Yet, in a sense, reality can never offer absolute proof, only probabilities. How probable does a case have to be before you take a side? To fail to ask this question is to fail to understand the very concept of justice.

As the evidence develops, so do the characters of the other eleven jurors. One is highly prejudiced against immigrants and the poor. One seems to be voting with his mood. He is more concerned with his bladder, his stomach and an upcoming baseball game than the case. He grumbles about the heat and votes guilty. Then air conditioner turns on and suddenly he votes not guilty. Another juror changes his mind every time a new argument is made. Still another, who prides himself on having a logical and cool mind, also projects that logic onto the actions and decisions of everyone else in the case. Which is ironic, because what is less empirical than the belief that humans behave logically?

All this makes us think about the fallibility of the human mind. Justice as a perfect ideal must always be filtered through the imperfect human mind. How can we ever claim to know, with certainty, what is true? What is fair? How can we take a stranger’s life into our hands… yet when justice for a person’s death is at stake, how can we not?

One by one, the jurors change their votes, for good reasons and bad. We don’t know if any of this is moving us closer to the truth, but it feels more just.

In place of all this subtlety, Eugene stares at the evidence until another juror, who owns a hardware store, realizes that the prosecution’s expert misidentified the safe. It’s actually a sturdier model that would take a couple hours to torch through. Now the kid’s alibi is actually, you know, an alibi. If the safe took fifteen minutes to open, there’s no reason to believe his story. If it took two to three hours, there’s no reason not to. In place of ambiguity, we have a light switch issue.

Everyone on the jury agrees to change their vote to “not guilty,” on account of how the kid is obviously not guilty. There’s one holdout, however, who rants about how obviously bad and guilty this kid is. In the middle of his rant, he accidentally reveals that he used to know this kid, and hated his guts. In order to get on the jury, he lied about it.

Bernard reveals this to the bailiff, the case is ruled a mistrial and everybody goes home. The defense is given the hardware guy’s notes, and they will use it in the upcoming retrial, which gives the kid a good chance. Bernard and Eugene go get pot roast, and that’s the end of the story.

Twelve Angry Men also has a final holdout with a personal grudge, but once again, the situation is more complicated. Juror 3 has a bad relationship with his son, and he’s been projecting that onto this case. We get the sense that he’s spent his entire life believing that his son was just an irredeemably bad seed, because the alternative would be to believe he did something wrong as a parent. He is afraid of this idea, and will resist it at all costs. Even the cost of another kid’s life.

When Juror 3 finally realizes what he is doing and votes not guilty, it’s a beautiful, cathartic scene. It also does not convince us that the defendant is innocent. It only makes us see the importance of judging the value of his life as someone who is still, in many ways, a vulnerable kid. We don’t know what will happen to him. We don’t know if Juror 3 will reconnect with his son. We only know that human nature is not simple and the human intellect is not infallible. After a tragedy, we cannot always know what happened or what we should do about it. We can only approach our decisions with as much thoughtfulness as we can muster, balancing fairness against mercy.

Now, at this point, you might want to criticize me for saying more about Twelve Angry Men than Blind Justice. Well… yeah. That’s completely accurate. But I dare anybody to watch these two back to back and have more to say about Blind Justice. It’s not that Blind Justice is bad, or wrong. It’s just unmemorable. I mean that literally. I’ve actually listened to this episode more times than I’ve watched Twelve Angry Men, yet the scenes and jokes of Twelve Angry Men play in my mind like a newsreel, while the events of Blind Justice blur together. In fact the only scene from Blind Justice that immediately comes to mind is one where a female juror orders cashew chicken despite being allergic to cashews. It wasn’t a good scene or a bad one, just kind of head-scratching, enough to be remembered.

Before I asked myself how I knew Eugene was right, I wasn’t going to review this episode. I was going to toss it in with the others that were too boring to say anything interesting about. Then I realized the unwritten hierarchy of moral authority. Once I realized it, I knew I had to talk about it, because it is part of why I was such an uncritical viewer of this series.

I was an analytical kid. Once, when accused of being an overthinker, I started to seriously debate whether there was such a thing as thinking too much. I think I was eleven at the time. Yet, as I review these episodes, there is so much that is staggeringly under-thought. Not even wrong, just lazy, sloppy, and needlessly mediocre.

 

That’s the other reason why I have gone into so much detail, in comparing it to Twelve Angry Men. Unambiguous authority figures don’t make for clear moral thinking. They discourage moral self-examination. Twelve Angry Men encourages you to side with Juror 8, but it doesn’t dictate that stance. Juror 8 could be wrong. My partner actually is positive that the boy was the murderer; at one point the jurors re-enact the crime to check the timetable, and they forget to mime wiping fingerprints off the handle. After their re-enactment, they come to distrust a piece of eyewitness testimony, but my partner thinks the crucial seconds they left out were enough to invalidate their already sketchy experiment. We debate back and forth. But in that very debate, we are internalizing the point. True justice requires care and deliberation.

In contrast, I don’t think I internalized any lessons from Blind Justice. Because I trusted Eugene to be right, I thought no more on the issue.

If there is any theme to the Reviews as an Atheist/Agnostic/Godless Heathen series as a whole, it’s that evangelical Christians aren’t always wrong, but the modern movement has gotten bad at catching themselves when they are wrong. They take a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to their ideas, and trust their preferred leaders without taking a serious look at the evidence their leaders are basing their judgment on. In this world of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and corrupt administrations, that tendency has taken on dangerous consequences.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I don’t know, I can’t think of a scene except the cashew scene. Like, I know what happened, because I took notes, but I can’t remember the scenes and the dialog.

Worst Moment: Like, she said, “does anybody want my cashew chicken, I’m allergic,” and then somebody said, “then why did you order it?” and she said, “because the cashews give it a nice flavor,” and the guy sputtered “but, but you’re allergic to cashews, so why… nevermind.” Is that a good joke? A bad joke? A so bad it’s good joke? I literally cannot decide.

Story Rating: Meh. C-

Moral Rating: Again I say to thee, meh. C-

Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky

What It’s About

A runaway named Rendi gets stranded in a town with no moon. There he meets a mysterious storytelling guest, who unveils secrets about the ancient wrongs that left their marks on the town, and how the boy can help to erase them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is an excellent companion to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I think anybody who likes one would like the other. After all, who can get enough of little kids going on quests in beautiful magical lands? Not me, that’s for sure!

Like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this book is full of stories within stories. The folklore adds color and depth to the world, but they also hold clues to the resolution of the protagonist’s question. Once you have read both you will also see ties between each other, but honestly you can read them in either order. This one was written second but takes place first, so I suppose it’s technically a prequel, but the main connection is simply that they take place in the same world.

As much as I liked Minli, I liked Rendi even more. He actually started out as quite the spoiled brat, but in the fun way where he starts growing as a person almost immediately, and each chapter gives him more depth and nuance. For such a short, simple book, there are beautiful layers, both to his character and the ideas and world that are built around him. He’s not the only one with an interesting character arc either, and those who don’t evolve have some other interesting secret to be unveiled.

The magical elements were absolutely captivating. This is a marvelous, enchanting world that I was thrilled to spend some time in. It’s a great story for kids who want to be transported, and adults who want to rekindle their childlike wonder.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

The Wrath and the Dawn/The Rose and the Dagger, by Renee Ahdieh

Wrath and the Dawn

What It’s About

A magical retelling of the Arabian Nights, with love triangles, political intrigue and ancient curses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

When I was a kid, it was easy for books to sweep me up. As soon as I picked up a book, I would get lost in the world. I would care about the characters so deeply that I would periodically close books and whisper to the spines, begging the pages to not kill off this character and please make sure this one evil jerk gets punished. I’d yell at them and curse the author’s name if they ended on cliffhangers, and then run off to get the very next book. Growing up has brought more good than bad, but I really miss that feeling of total immersement. Books can still make me feel that way, but some I enjoy more cerebrally, and others gradually earn it. Suspension of disbelief has become more elusive.

This book brought back that feeling almost instantly.

The protagonist, Sharzad, is simultaneously larger than life and intimately relatable. She is fierce, brave, brash, clever and beautiful, but she has more than enough moments of short sightedness and human failings. You want her to win because she has good intentions and an admirable strength of will. You’re scared she won’t because she is ultimately human just like us. Khalid, the young caliph who she marries to stop him from murdering his nightly brides, is a great character as well. Renee Ahdieh does a fantastic job hinting that there will be a big reveal of how he has been compelled to become a murderer, and in the meantime characterizing him as flawed but longing to break free of his crimes. Long before you know why, you want there to be a reason that will let you like him, and the reveal hits that perfect blend of surprising and inevitable. Lesser authors have failed to make less monstrous characters relatable, but you care about Khalid. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. I can’t reveal too much about them without spoilers, but every one starts out fascinating and only become more so as the story fleshes them out.

The setting is marvelously rich and magical. The pacing will stop you from putting this book down for a moment longer than necessary. The resolution is satisfying… once you get to the second book, that is. The Wrath and the Dawn wraps up several major plot threads but does end on a cliffhanger, which The Rose and the Dagger resolves perfectly. That’s why I am recommending both books together. It seems unfair not to warn you that, once you pick up the first book, you will absolutely have to read the second.

But hey, who says that’s a bad thing?

Content Warnings

Mostly violence. There are sword fights, assassination attempts and references to a past suicide.

There is some sexual content, but despite the source material it is all consensual. In the first few pages, Sharzad believes that Khalid will expect her to sleep with him, but Khalid makes it clear that she does not have to make herself available to him. She does continue with her plan, because she intends to use her sexuality along with her stories to end the slaughter. It is a conflicted choice, but it is unambiguously her choice. There’s also a brief scene where she is harassed while in disguise on the street, but that ends poorly for the harassers.

Also, the only drawn out, sensual scenes are the ones where consent is not only present, but enthusiastic.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The One About Trust

Sorry this was posted late. I decided at the last minute that, although this was a two part episode, there was really only enough material for one post. It took a little extra time to put the merge the two drafts I had together.

This is the last episode of the political series, and of course it had to be one of the two election stories. The first election story they did was about Tom Reilly’s bid for mayor against corrupt businessman Bart Rathbone, and honestly, it did not have that much to say about politics. It was just a lot of silly goofs. This episode, well, in its own way it also has very little to say about politics. But it pretends it does, and that’s the problem.

It begins with Connie finding out she is not going to graduate high school on schedule. Somehow, she has neglected to take a required government class, and it won’t be offered until the semester after she is due to graduate. The counselor offers her an alternative. As the election is going on, Connie can volunteer for one of the candidates, write a report on what happened, and they’ll call it square.

Connie jumps on the offer, but finds out there are two candidates, neither of which are her ideal. First is, once again, the token villain of the entire town, Bart Rathbone. Second is Margaret Faye, feminist.

Okay, there’s a fair bit more to her objections than that. Margaret Faye and Whit kinda-sorta used to date. They respected each other’s intelligence, but disagreed on almost every issue. Margaret liked having someone around who challenged her, and wanted to get serious. Whit instead chose to break it off, and she was pretty petty about it. I’ll probably get into that episode during the romance theme. Anyway, despite the bad blood between Margaret Faye and Whit, Connie still considers her less objectionable than Bart, so she starts working.

When she brings this up to Whit, he is initially flabbergasted. He can’t believe she is working for Margaret, and only concedes the decision when Connie spells out how bad the situation is, and how much worse working for Bart be. Throughout this episode, he will emphasize that he is not going to vote, because an intelligent, experienced woman whom he disagrees with and dislikes is just as bad as a corrupt, inexperienced and frankly dangerously incompetent nincompoop.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this episode was made by people who endorsed Trump in 2016.

Whit backs off eventually. He gives Connie her paycheck, but accidentally hands over Eugene’s. She offers to take it to him, but he insists on taking it back. It’s awkward. Then Eugene comes in, hears about Connie’s decision, and begs Whit to make her reconsider. It’s even more awkward. Then Bart comes in, seeking Whit’s endorsement, but when he finds out that Connie is volunteering for Margaret, he too tells Whit to tell her not to do it. Connie asks why everyone is talking about her instead of to her. Whit says she can make up her own mind, but he says this to Bart and Eugene instead of telling them to talk to Connie. It’s really, really fucking awkward.

At Connie’s first campaign meeting, Margaret asks if Whit sent her. Connie is angry at the suspicion and responds that she’s here for school credit. Margaret doesn’t like that as much as “I actually care and believe in what you stand for,” but it’s better than, “I’m spying for Whit.” She still isn’t sure about Connie’s relationship with Whit, though.

She wants to “shake up the status quo,” which everyone takes to mean tearing down the patriarchy. Part of Bart’s pitch to Whit is that she wants to tear down the “old boys’ network,” which means Whit and Tom Reilly and a few other guys. Whit says there is no such thing as an old boy’s network, by which I assume he means nobody is meeting in a dimly lit room to hatch conspiracies. But Tom and Whit have considerable clout around town; that is not up for debate. Apart from wanting to shake up that unquestioned power, we don’t learn anything about Margaret Faye’s plans for Odyssey. She wants things to change, because it’s time for a change, a changey kind of change, and the way she’ll make that happen is by changing things.

What a monster.

Going back to Connie and Whit, Margaret worries that Whit tends to think for her, and is not always fair. Connie protests at this. Margaret counters by asking about her and Eugene. Connie has worked at Whit’s End longer. She does the cleaning up and supervising kids. Eugene works on the computers and inventions, and is in charge when Whit isn’t around. Connie initially answers that those are the things Eugene is good at, and that he was hired for. Still, when she goes back to work at Whit’s End, she is bothered by the conversation. This is made worse when she sees Eugene with a cash bag. He is being sent to do the deposits. Connie asks why she isn’t given the deposit, and Eugene replies, “because you’re a girl.”

You know, Eugene and Connie famously bicker, and it’s usually presented as both people’s fault. And sometimes that’s right, but in doing these reviews, I’m noticing that, quite frequently, they are arguing because Eugene is a sexist jerk.

When she and Whit talk it over, Whit concedes to some sexism on the point of the deposits. Honestly, his response is pretty classy. He says that he tends to think of a young woman with a lot of money as a larger target than a young man with a lot of money. When it comes to the other things, it’s a mixture of Connie showing less interest and Eugene coming in motivated and qualified to do these things. But, now that Connie is showing interest in all this, he is happy to change things around. He’s going to start teaching her to work with the computers, and take on more responsibility.

I say this is classy because, in the real world, sexism is often unconscious. Anybody can go along with the status quo unconsciously, especially when raised in a more traditionally gendered generation. It’s how people act when their behavior is called out that tells you something about their character. Whit did not intentionally limit Connie and he is willing to change. Good for him.

And here I want to circle back to Margaret Faye. Her nebulous desire to shake things up is generally framed as a problem. But what would have happened if she hadn’t made Connie question the way things are? Connie would have been limited. Connie is a smart, spirited young woman who is constantly frustrated by the way people underestimate and overlook her. You don’t even have to go to other episodes to see this; Bart and Eugene’s conversation with Whit is a perfect illustration of how people talk about how to handle her rather than talk to her about what she thinks. She deserves to have her potential nurtured, especially by Whit, who genuinely does have an incredible amount of influence in her life. So, good on Margaret for pushing her to have that long overdue conversation.

Before I return to the episode, I need to point out one more problem, because it is about to become important. The disparity in Connie and Eugene’s duties would be a problem if they were both hired out of high school, at the same pay grade, for the same reasons. But they are in completely different positions. Eugene is in grad school, and specializes in computer science. He’s an adult, while Connie is still a minor. Eugene has a specialized skill set. Connie… is still a minor. This isn’t a feminist issue. I’d say Margaret is being a straw feminist, but, uh, nobody else brings that point up later. They just talk about how Connie isn’t great at computer stuff.

Meanwhile, at the bank, Eugene runs into Bart Rathbone’s wife, and they have a classic spilled-paper-collision-mixup. She ends up with Eugene’s paycheck stub. She nearly throws it away, but Bart wants to hang onto it. He has a suspicion, based on what he saw at Whit’s End earlier. They go back and dig through the trash, and find the paycheck stub Connie threw away.

Meanwhile, at Margaret Faye’s campaign, she asks Connie to look up on some information. Margaret says she has been contacted by a woman named Roxie McCormick, who once worked at Whit’s publishing organization. She says she was fired by Whit after trying to point out some of his discriminatory practices towards women. Connie finds the idea ridiculous, and Margaret says she doesn’t want to act on this information until she has verified it. Connie’s relationship with Whit gives her an opportunity to get an inside scoop, which is why Margaret went straight to her. That said, Margaret emphasizes that this is Connie’s choice. If she is not comfortable, she can turn the job down, and Margaret will completely understand, no hard feelings. She ends by repeating her advice, to Connie, to think for herself.

This scene is played with sinister background music, but honestly, Margaret is being completely reasonable. She’s taking steps to get all the facts before she acts, she is giving Connie the choice of whether to be involved in the investigation or not, and she is also taking the risk that, with Connie’s relationship, she might choose to cover up information rather than expose it. I suspect part of why Margaret chose her was that, if Connie of all people can bring back confirmation, despite her attachment to Whit, you know the intel is good.

Back at Whit’s End, Eugene warns Whit that Connie is in a bad mood. He talks about how she has been in a bad mood off and on for a while, such as on the day of the bank deposit. He thinks Margaret Faye is at the back of it, as she had just come from the campaign. Whit and Eugene piece together that this is why Connie has suddenly been complaining about her jobs and asking for tutoring on the computer. Their tone suggests that this explains sudden, irrational behavior; it was all Margaret’s fault! It’s not like the way Connie generally thinks and acts would suggest that she has aspirations beyond wiping tables, and Margaret just gave her the impetus to actually voice those in more explicit terms, and that impetus made her life better. Plus, nothing says “sexism free workplace environment” like two men talking about the mood swings of a woman who is trying to expand her skill set.

Connie has told Eugene about the accusations of Roxie McCormick, and Eugene passes these on to Whit. Whit explains that Roxie was actually fired for embezzling funds and there is plenty of documentation to prove it, including a police investigation. So, okay. There’s that subplot over and done with.

Whit is upset that Margaret told Connie this information, and instead of going to Connie, he goes straight to Margaret. He asks her, accusingly, why she sent Connie. Margaret explains, very calmly, that she didn’t send Connie, Connie accepted a request. When I say calmly, I should add that the voice actress adds a slightly imperious edge to Margaret Faye’s voice. Margaret has not, so far, done anything especially sinister, but the voice actress makes her sound like, well, a conniving bitch. Someone wily and adept at causing chaos while having plausible deniability. There’s a dissonance between the text of the episode and the framing, and it’s important to note that, because very often, when this kind of dissonance exists, the impressions of the framing are what stand out.

While he’s here, Margaret asks Whit if the accusations are true. Whit’s response is, “Not that it’s any of your business, but no, it isn’t.”

Sidenote; I think it actually is her business. This isn’t a personal relationship she is investigating, but the business practices of a large company which Whit happened to oversee. If a politician was running on curbing environmentally destructive business practices, and found out a local business did something highly dangerous, they would probably want that information to be let out so their constituents would know the legislation is necessary. That’s why Margaret tells Connie she wants the information. A major part of her platform, in fact the only one we know for sure, is that she wants to combat sexism. Establishing sexist practices of a powerful local businessman would show Odyssey why this is necessary. You can do the math.

Margaret takes his word, but Whit isn’t done. He presses her on why Connie was chosen. He won’t take, “because she works for you dumbass,” for an answer, and they get into Margaret’s belief that Connie needs to learn to think for herself. Whit’s response is to scoff at the suggestion that she doesn’t. He even accuses her of influencing her. Margaret laughs at that, and tells him that he’s been influencing her since she arrived in Odyssey. She says that what this is really about is Whit’s fear that anyone but him might have an influence on what Connie thinks.

God, it’s almost like she listens to the show. 

Just outside of the campaign headquarters, Bart ambushes Whit. He presents Whit with two paycheck stubs; Eugene’s and Connie’s. Whit pays Eugene three times more. Bart threatens to go public with this information unless Whit endorses him. Whit openly laughs at this threat. Obviously such proof of systemic sexism will flood the polls with voters for Margaret, and Bart will lose. There’s no way in hell Bart would do that. After spelling this out, Whit walks off, leaving Bart dumbfounded.

But the very next morning, this story is in all the papers, and Connie has quit Whit’s End.

Margaret Faye personally calls Whit to deny that she is the source of the leak. She also apologizes for the harm done and avoids talking to the press about it… okay, that’s weird and out of character. I think this is their attempt to make her character complicated and not a total villain. That attempt is itself weirdly telling. It would make more sense to complicate her by showing how, from her point of view, a crusade for women’s rights makes, you know, sense? Like it’s a valid thing to seek? But instead she sabotages her own quest, as a favor to a man who she frankly has mixed feelings about. Uh, okay then.

Election day comes and goes, Margaret wins, and Connie still won’t talk to Whit.

She will, however, talk to Tom Reilly, who tells her the real reason behind the paycheck discrepancy. See, back when she came to Odyssey, Whit set up a secret surprise trust fund for her college. Tom Reilly says he knows about the trust fund because, during Whit’s mission trip to the Middle East, Tom did the payroll. He emphasizes that Eugene and Connie are paid equally, when you factor in the bonus that she never sees because it goes immediately to her trust fund.

So Whit’s a good guy after all, because he set up a trust fund. Which Connie pays for. With a bonus she doesn’t know she’s getting. So she’s being paid more, even though she’s being paid less.

Wait, what? What? What?????

Let me break down why this is so absurd.

First, Whit is fucking loaded. This was established in Tales of Moderation and referenced in several others. He could have set up the entire trust fund out of his own pocket if he wanted, and that’s what anyone who actually cared about Connie would have done.

Second, not knowing that Whit is doing this, Connie and her Mom are probably already doing something to prepare for college expenses. What sacrifices are they making now that they don’t realize they don’t have to? People on the edge of poverty have to budget their money tightly and make a lot of sacrifices. Heck, maybe Connie’s Mom wants to go back to college, or take some self-improvement courses, and she’s holding off because her daughter’s education comes first. Surprises are nice, but it’s also nice to know that you can dip into your savings to get your roof fixed.

Third, is Eugene actually supposed to Connie’s equal or not? Because it doesn’t make sense that he would be. He’s older, more educated, and has a profitable specialized skill set. Oh, and he’s supporting himself while Connie still lives with her Mom. You know, cause she’s a minor.

Do the writers of this show think pay equity means that all male and female employees should be paid the same regardless of what they do? ‘Cause that’s not the issue. The computer guy gets more money. It’s fine. What’s not fine is that a lifetime of gendered expectations means women get discouraged from becoming the computer guy in the first place.

Oh, and when they get that training, they often encounter demonstrably hostile work environments, directly tied to their gender.

And then there’s still the expectation that they will eventually quit and stay home with their babies, because stay at home dads are stigmatized. And people use that expectation to justify paying all women less just for being female, cause all women secretly want babies even if they say they don’t so we can pretty much assume there will be babies, hormones amirite?

And women are also socialized to be more accommodating so they are less likely to negotiate for a raise.

And on top of all that some bosses are just straight up sexist assholes who actually do give women a pay cut just for being women, so that’s not good.

In conclusion, this episode’s contrived solution to a contrived problem actually makes Whit look worse than if he just paid the high schooler minimum wage, you know, cause she’s a minor.

Anyway, the music tells us, along with Tom’s flowery speech about Whit’s compassion for a poor divorced single mother and her kid, that our heartstrings are supposed to be pulled. Connie is driven to tears and runs to Whit. She reveals that she is the one who leaked the story! Oh what a twist! Oh my goodness! She’s such a horrible person who has been proved so very wrong and she should have trusted Whit oh the humanity! And just to hammer the point home, when she gets an A on her final report, she says she doesn’t deserve it because she “failed trust.”

Uuuuggggghhhh.

Final Ratings

Best Part: During his concession speech, Bart starts talking about reports of ballot stuffing, which he intends to investigate. Then someone whispers that it was his son, Rodney, who did the stuffing. Bart promptly shifts to advertising upcoming sales at the Electric Palace.

Worst Part: “I’m not paying you less! I’m just subtracting two thirds of your paycheck without telling you about it.” God, at least when the government takes some of your paycheck, it tells you how much and where it’s going. But it’s fine when a small business owner does it…

Story Rating: Starts strong with some interesting conflicts, but fizzles into contrived resolutions. D –

Moral Rating: This is my final review in the politics theme, and despite being set around a mayoral election, it barely talks about politics. It alludes to them, then throws contrived monkey wrenches into the conversation to make you feel bad for distrusting the Designated Authority Figure. And that’s, well, that’s really destructive. It doesn’t educate. It just programs distrust. F

Final Ratings For Political Topic

Best Episode: Viva La Difference

Worst Episode: ….literally all of the others?

Okay, most of them at least had stories that were interesting apart from the political ignorance, while this one was bad from a story perspective alone. So, The One About Trust wins. Er, loses. Whatever, you get what I’m saying.

Good Things They Said: Women and Black people aren’t actively subhuman.

Bad Things They Said: It is, however, completely normal and natural that they have less power than white men. Anyone trying to shake up a Pleasantville-style set of norms is probably evil.

Things They Failed to Address: Liberals sometimes have good ideas. Gay people exist.

Overall Rating: I don’t think this show should have to give a comprehensive political education. The complexities of fiscal policy is a bit beyond the scope of your average kids show. I would not have faulted this show if it had opted to be as apolitical as possible. But it doesn’t. It does specifically argue against feminist, anti-imperialist and socially progressive ideas, and it does so by consistently misrepresenting the positions they are arguing against, and framing liberal characters with sinister music.

I disagree with the politics of Focus on the Family, which produces Adventures in Odyssey. But that disagreement isn’t the problem here. I dig intelligent disagreement. I still enjoy C. S. Lewis for that reason. What pisses me off is that they emotionally bully kids into being afraid of liberals, without properly understanding liberal positions.

F, for Fuck that Shit.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

What It’s About

The story of Darling, a mischievous Zimbabwean pre-teen in a shanty town where the adults no longer know what to do with themselves.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a beautiful, engaging, heartbreaking novel. It tells the Darling’s story in sporadic anecdotes of trials and misadventures. In a way, it reminded me of an Upside Down version of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables; it has the same episodic structure, the same cast of recurring friends and enemies, the same sense of childhood mischief. But of course the mischievous episodes involve stealing guavas to ward off starvation, seeing adults lose their grip on reality, parents dying of AIDS, and pregnant friends who are barely old enough to be called teens. In Darling’s life, the horrific and the diverting are all mixed up together. Innocence and corruption are experienced side by side.

Darling’s narrative voice is distinctive and fascinating. I love some of the metaphors she comes up with, and how her phrasing evolves through the story. I loved the way she never apologized for her perspective, or tried to make it more comfortable for a Western reader. She bluntly states her mind and takes it for granted that this is simply how things are.

That was especially interesting during her childhood stories. I often thought, “this is how kids think. They don’t censor. They don’t apologize. They just wonder why the rest of the world is doing such a bad job conforming to their expectations.”

It got a little more dissonant as we got into her adolescence, and she immigrates to America.  I did expect her to become a bit more empathetic more quickly. In retrospect, I like that she didn’t. To clarify, she is not a mean or heartless protagonist. She does care about the well being of others. It is more that, while she gets better at the adult hypocrisy of acting how she is expected to act, she has trouble grasping the shape of another person’s suffering. If someone endured something she could directly compare to her own struggles, she would care, and care deeply. But if someone’s pain had nothing to do with her own experiences, (a teenager with an eating disorder, for example) Darling’s reaction is usually anywhere from annoyance to scorn to anger. I don’t think that made her a bad character. It made her complex, realistic and interesting. If she was frustrating at times, she was always frustrating in thought provoking ways.

The only downside is that it did make the last third of the book a little less fun, but again, I think that was honest and smart. Part of the point is that immigration did not magically solve all of her problems, and we got to see her learn that. The only thing I wish is that we had seen her press on to a level

I thought it was among the most interesting and well crafted books I’ve read. It’s probably a love it or hate it book, and if you’re interested in immigration stories that are equally brilliant but a little less dark I’d recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But if nothing I’ve said so far has put you off, you will probably love it.

Content Warnings

Violence, sex, profanity, references to bodily functions, physical emotional and sexual abuse… and of course all of that is witnessed by children, if it does not happen directly to them. It’s a book for those with strong stomachs.

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, by Kali Nicole Gross

Hannah Mary Tabbs

What It’s About

The discovery of a headless, limbless corpse in 1887 Philadelphia sparks the arrest of two Black suspects, one a light skinned man and the other a dark skinned woman. Colorism, gender, stereotypes and politics all come into play as both fight for survival in a system rigged against them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a brilliant blend of true crime with history and sociology. The dissections of culture, identity and power dynamics are smart and fascinating, as well as extremely relevant to today. It breaks apart the myth of the post-war North as a racially integrated paradise and exposes the long history of racial bias in law enforcement. At the same time, the academia never gets in the way of the pace of the story. Kali Nicole Gross is a great writer, and this book, despite being meaty, will not take long to finish. I kept it on hand at all times and took every opportunity to read it, even if just a page at a time.

Hannah Mary Tabbs as a fascinating historical figure. She does things that most of us would consider unsavory, but considering the ways society was stacked against her, it is hard not to root for her regardless. I first learned about this book from the authors interview on Stuff You Missed in History Class, and she said one of her goals was to show that Black women did not have to be flawless champions of justice to be noteworthy or interesting. She definitely achieved that goal.

I also thought the author did a fantastic job drawing the line between evidence and speculation. I do love history with a narrative flair, but I can’t stand it when authors let that be license to state things that can’t possibly be known as fact. At the same time, I know too much hedging can result in dry prose. It’s a tricky balance to find, but this book absolutely found it.

In short, if you’re a fan of either gruesome crime or American history, this book will have something for you. If you like both, this book was made for you.

Content Warnings

Well, it explores a grisly murder and the impacts of racism on early criminal justice in America. So… there’s that.

Nothing beyond what you’d expect though. If you weren’t put off by the title, you probably won’t be put off by the content.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Subject Yourself

*Deep breathe*

Okay, I think the best way to handle this is to describing the episode without criticism, to capture how I perceived it as a kid. Then I’ll go into what stood out to me as an adult.

It opens with Lawrence Hodges, eternal troublemaker, waiting at Whit’s End for his mother to pick him up. He is chatting with Jack Allen about his new braces. Unsurprisingly, he hates them. They’re uncomfortable, they stop him from eating half the food he likes, and he has to wear them for two years. Jack Allen encourages him to be patient and follow his orthodontist’s directions, but Lawrence is still moody.

Mrs. Hodges shows up. She was delayed by a meeting to go over the new history curriculum for next year, and she is not happy with it. She isn’t very specific, but one thing that bothers her is the absence of religion, outside of descriptions of indigenous beliefs. Jack Allen says he heard something on the news about “revisionist history,” which he defines as textbooks that try to downplay the role of Christianity in American heritage. He thought that only big cities like New York or Chicago were doing that kind of thing, not places like Odyssey. But apparently he’s wrong, and he’s dismayed that Mrs. Hodges will have to teach it.

Later, Mrs. Hodges goes to the principal to talk about the new curriculum. She shows him a list of problems. The principal did not remember there being any issues, but she says there were events that were left out, and more importantly, no discussion of the Christianity that laid the foundation of those events. When he asks if she is religious, she says yes, but emphasizes that this is not relevant to her problem. She gives Washington and Lincoln as examples of figures who you can’t discuss without also discussing their faith. They go on talking, and I’ll skim over what was said because, as I said, as a kid the details went over my head. I’ll get back into them later. What did stuck was the sense that this textbook was clearly trying to brainwash kids into thinking all Christians and white people were evil.

Tension builds when the principal brings up the potential repercussions of fighting the curriculum. He thinks the government will slash their budget. He mentions an after-school program for special needs children that she works with. It’s an example of the kind of thing they could have to cut if they lose funding. He urges her to not rock the boat.

Meanwhile, Jack Allen catches Lawrence with a huge bag of snacks and candy from the “don’t eat” list. Lawrence tries to justify his shopping trip, but his arguments boil down to “but I really like sticky candy.” He’s also been having a miserable time at home. He and his mother fight every night over the headgear that comes with his braces. He hates sleeping with it, almost as much as he hates the nightly cleaning routines. Jack listens and encourages him to follow the orthodontists’ rules, but also use his imagination to make the experience more bearable.

This gives Lawrence an idea. He asks his Mom if he can get his braces colored. She doesn’t have time to talk through scheduling and costs, as she is distracted by the problems she has found in the textbook. She does like the idea of coloring Lawrence’s braces, and reassures him that she will get to it, but right now is not a good time. Lawrence is not happy to hear this. Patience isn’t a strength of his.

Mrs. Hodges goes back to the principal. Some other teachers have shared similar concerns, and she asks the principal to take them to talk this decision over with the school board. He is reluctant, but when she threatens to go to the press, he caves. He, and the board, would prefer a private discussion over a public fury. The principal does warn Mrs. Hodges that if this does not go her way, it could ruin her entire career. Mrs. Hodges is prepared to take that risk.

While his mom goes to the meeting, Lawrence waits at Whit’s End once again. He gleefully shows off his new, technicolored braces. Which he colored himself. Yeah, he got tired of waiting for the appointment, which is a whole week away, so he just helped himself to some paint leftover from his roller derby kit. Although he does now feel a little queasy…

Jack facepalms and rushes Lawrence to the emergency room.

Mrs. Hodges presents her case to the board. She is asked whether this is just discomfort over being confronted with a perspective that is different from hers, and she says she is positive that is not the issue. As she explains it, being a teacher she is used to dealing with other points of view. This book simply takes it too far.

They go over the potential consequences to her career and the school’s budget. She acknowledges those risks, but insists that an accurate, balanced look at events is crucial to education, and this textbook is simply indoctrinating students. It also opens the door to further strongarming of teachers and ideological issues. She says she would rather resign than teach the curriculum. The board thanks her for her time, and then adjourns to discuss the issue.

Mrs. Hodges then gets the message to meet Jack and Lawrence at the hospital.

Lawrence was made to throw up the paint, and is doing fine now. Jack shakes his head over Lawrence’s impatience, and Lawrence is now a little more ready to work on that character flaw. Jack impresses on him that, more than just being patient, he also needs to listen to those in authority. Lawrence then brings up his mother and her little rebellion against the school board. Jack talks about the difference between standing up as a kid to people who have expertise that you don’t (like medical knowledge about healthy teeth), and standing up as an adult who has a responsibility to protest when she sees something that is wrong. It’s a pretty good speech, honestly.

A week later, Lawrence gets his teeth colored the right way, and he loves them. Mrs. Hodges also gets news from the school board. They decided to hold off on any changes in the curriculum until they have time to take a more careful look at the material.

Cue the happy music!

Okay, so as a kid I thought this was a pretty solid episode. I didn’t really know anything about history other than what my parents taught me, and I pretty much took it for granted that AIO could teach me no wrong, so I assumed the textbook was exactly as bad as she said it was. Then I listened to it again, with more information under my belt.

Revisionist history is not just about erasing Christianity, whatever Jack Allen says. It is any approach to history that challenges a dominant narrative. It’s not inherently good or inherently bad. Like all academia, it’s only as good as the evidence that supports it.

History is, as the cliche goes, written by the victors. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say they get a crack at the first draft. Every historian writes with a perspective that will inevitably color their narrative. Sometimes they do their best to stick to the facts despite their own biases. Other times they cherry pick the facts that best fit their own biases. Sometimes they actively make shit up. Western academia is built around the idea that if you constantly question and challenge your own ideas, then the truth will eventually triumph over the lies. Revisionist history is simply a natural part of this process.

As a kid, though, Jack Allen’s skewed definition made perfect sense to me. I was being homeschooled in part because my parents didn’t trust the government to not brainwash me with secularism and liberalism. A big part of my education was learning how important religion was to everything, especially history and the founding ideals of America.

As it turned out, much of what I was taught was wrong. I didn’t learn how Thomas Jefferson cut out parts of the Bible that he disagreed with, or how Benjamin Franklin was a deist, which by 1770s standards was nearly atheism. I taught that Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were devout men. I was not taught that Samuel Morse wanted to use his telegraph machine to spread anti-Catholic propaganda, Alexander Graham Bell was a racist, ableist eugenicist, and Thomas Edison was an all-around dick. Oh, and of course it was not reasonable to suggest that people like Washington or Jefferson used the Bible to justify keeping slaves. Religion got credit for the good, never the bad.

When she gives her speech to the board, Mrs. Hodges claims to have a seven page single spaced list of errors, which she has provided to the board. Obviously a half hour episode was not going to have time to show all of them, so we have to judge it on the basis of the issues she does bring up. I already described her first issue. She thinks the Founding Fathers and other figures cannot be understood without a discussion of their faith. Obviously, for some historical figures, she is right. On the other hand, many others were passively religious, or actively critical of religion. And sometimes religion was used to justify atrocities, like how Manifest Destiny was used to justify genocide of the Native Americans. I do agree that balance is important to understanding history, but I think our ideas of balance are very different.

For example, Mrs. Hodes doesn’t think this textbook isn’t particularly fair to white settlers. She says that they talk about the settler’s slaughter of Indians but not vice versa. That’s not a fair comparison. At most, I’d acknowledge that there were inevitably cases where white non-combatants were killed by Natives, because Native Americans are human beings and any large group of human beings contains a few shitty ones. But in terms of the scale, context and stakes, there is no fair analysis that makes white settlers anything but invading imperialists. The indigenous peoples were there first; that’s why they’re called indigenous. We attacked without provocation, we broke our own treaties and we corralled the survivors into shithole reservations. And if you still think their slaughter of us and our slaughter of them is comparable, ask yourself, how many of us are left? How many of them? Entire tribes were wiped out, entire languages lost. We committed genocide, and it’s our moral imperative to admit that.

Similarly, she talks about how unfair it is that Christian missionaries are described torturing Indians. Well, tough. That happened. She complains that there’s no mention of Aztec human sacrifice. I’m pretty sure kids will find out about that one through cultural osmosis, so chill out. Plus, this sounds like a US history textbook, and that was more South and Central America, so that’s not especially relevant. She even complains that it doesn’t even mention the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, which… ugh.

Okay, for those who don’t already know, the history we are taught as kids is extremely skewed. There was one Thanksgiving that kind of resembles the kindergarten play version, and a ton of others that were held specifically to celebrate. If you want to know more, here’s some links. Besides, even if the sweet holiday version were completely true, would it really be historically relevant? If the best moment in European/Indian relations you can think of is one reasonably pleasant dinner party, that tells you something right there.

The last problem she describes is that the textbook “makes it sound like religious leaders were responsible for slavery.” That’s an ambiguous phrase. Do they specifically paint a picture of bishops sitting in a dark room hatching a plan to enslave Africans? ‘Cause yeah, that would not be correct. But “responsible” can also mean responsible for allowing it to happen, or justifying it. Christian preachers absolutely did that. She also says they aren’t credited with abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. That’s a fair point.  There were religious leaders both condemning and defending slavery.

A few paragraphs ago, I put a pin into the whole concept of whether or not the real complexities of religion in the US would be in line with AIO’s philosophy or not. Not every Christian in American history preached Christianity exactly the way AIO does. Quakers, for example, were probably the most famously anti-slavery denomination, and they were vocal activists. AIO is a fan of original sin. Quakers talk instead about the inner light of God which inhabits everyone, and many Quakers do not believe conversion is necessary for salvation. They also value the Bible but do not consider it infallible or the final word. Unitarians, who frequently reject even the divinity of Christ, were also typically abolitionists. As we know from episodes like Bad  Company, AIO does not look kindly on this kind of liberal Christianity. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists, whose doctrines align far more closely with AIO, literally became Southern Baptists because their leadership refused to condemn slavery.

I can headcanon Mrs. Hodges as a person who understood all this, and whose ideal textbook would not only celebrate Christian heritage, but also criticize Christianity’s failings and celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs among those who had, on the whole, an influence for good. But it does not change the fact that in their own writings on history, AIO certainly does not reach for this balance. Their definition of Christianity is narrow, to the point of cutting out many modern Christians, let alone earlier religious movements. I’m also not saying all the AIO-style Christians defended slavery and all the hippie Christians attacked it, but there’s a general trend here.

Mrs. Hodges says that this is “what we accused the Nazis of doing.” But the problem wasn’t the act of revising, just as Hitler’s problem wasn’t the gift of eloquence and Communism’s problem wasn’t the idea of regulating businesses… oh wait, AIO’s staff probably thinks the last one was the problem. Well, moving on. The problem happened when they lied, and cut out everyone who disagreed with the lie. And AIO is portraying the cutting out of Mrs. Hodges as an attack on people who disagree. That’s not what is really happening. In our society, there is still back and forth over education and textbooks. Sometimes I agree with what goes in and sometimes I don’t. And, most tellingly, I don’t think anything that Mrs. Hodges complains about is a serious inaccuracy. In some cases they are overcorrecting, but even there, society has so much of the opposite perspective… kids are going to hear your side too, Mrs. Hodges.

And here we get into my real problem. She makes an argument, a very good argument, that there’s something suspicious about a textbook that constantly picks and chooses what to include and what not to. Well, that can apply to the whole of AIO. They constantly pick and choose pro-Christian perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-traditional gender role perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-white perspectives. And when society presents them with alternate perspectives, they pick the most extreme example and cry foul.

Final Ratings

Best Part: This time my favorite part wasn’t a single scene, but an element of Mrs. Hodges’ character. She isn’t an aggressive person. On the contrary, she is very sweet and easygoing. This episode gradually revealed an inner strength to her that was both surprising and realistic. They say “beware the nice ones” for a good reason. Often the people who are softest on the surface have the most strength inside.

Worst Part: Jack’s skewed, scaremongering description of revisionist history.

Story Rating: Truth is, in terms of basic plot structures, this is one of the better ones. While it’s a bit obvious where it is going, it is tense, it engages the reader, and it uses Lawrence’s subplot as a good tension reliever. Hey, I split up the moral and story ratings for a reason! B+

Moral Rating: As with so many of these political themes, I have to split the difference between the ostensible moral message, and the underlying political ideas. The basic idea that authority should be respected in some cases and challenged in others is dead on, and they introduce some ways to tell the difference that are reasonable and accessible to kids. That’s an incredibly important set of ideas. But underneath it, they try to whitewash the racial and cultural imperialism that has marred our country’s history for so long. That’s incredibly damaging. So what the hell should I give this?

Well, if I’m analyzing this episode in isolation, halfway between an A+ and an F- is a C. If I’m analyzing it in the context of other themes, I’d have to weight the F side and give it a D-. Do with that what you will.

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

Ugly, by Robert Hoge

Ugly

What It’s About

Robert Hoge was born with a facial tumor and deformed legs. This is his memoir of a childhood of surgeries and misadventures, bullying and friendships, growing up and ultimately learning to love his body and his face.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I’m probably supposed to write about how inspiring and moving and educational this is, but honestly, I want start off recommending it for its humor. It’s a book about surgeries and prejudice and kids being assholes, but it’s also about spitballs, sports, what happens when you cross clunky prosthetics with a bicycle and a beehive. It’s about getting stuck in the mud and rescued by a nun, and refusing to learn from that experience, because mud is fun.

And there’s sad stuff too. When he was born, his mother was terrified to look at him, overwhelmed by the prospect of raising him, and has to go through a journey before she decides to take him home. Too many stories either erase or excuse the ableist reactions of a parent who first has a disabled child. I love that this story is there, without sugar coating, and also that he can talk about his mother overcoming that reaction without excusing it. That story was part of his normal; and not, thankfully, something used to make him feel guilty or grateful. It was a story of how his mother almost made the biggest mistake of her life, and missed out on a beloved son. In that one story there’s so much to learn about ableism and societal pressures and family and how love isn’t just a feeling but also a choice. And it’s just one of many equally thought provoking stories in the book.

I think there’s a huge need for well-rounded books about disability. His story is full of sad parts and happy parts, but it’s neither a doom and gloom navel gazing memoir nor a sugary mess of Inspiration!(TM) It’s an honest book about an ordinary person being dealt a really crappy starting hand, making the best of it, and going on to have a life of his own.

Content Warnings

None; even the descriptions of the surgeries and bullying hit a good balance of honest, but not graphic or immersive. This is probably because the book is actually aimed at middle grade readers, though I recommend it for anyone of any age.